From Spencer to Baker: A Resident Evil Retrospective

In 1998, I entered the world of survival horror.

My gaming self was defined when, for Christmas of that year, I received a PlayStation along with Metal Gear Solid…and Resident Evil. I was just 11, but I had no problem jumping into the graphic and terrifying adventure through the Spencer Mansion along the Arklay Mountains in the outskirts of Raccoon City. The gameplay was a bit challenging for me at first, which is why my first experience through the game was simply watching my older brother play through it.

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After that though, I had to relive experience for myself. I managed through the challenging and engrossing experience. Interestingly, every day at school I’d dread having to return to that harrowing world once I was back home. I even distinctly remember being scared all day of going into the flooded underground lab where a rogue shark was freely dwelling, planning how I would chart the fastest way through to escape.

Resident Evil: Director’s Cut on Playstation

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That’s how many horror games were for me at that age. I loved Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Clock Tower. I was genuinely afraid to turn on my system to play them, but I was compelled to return every time. In part, that’s due to the attraction I have to media and entertainment that are effective at delivering fear. But that’s also a testament to the quality of these games themselves. The gameplay was both restrictive and immediate, encouraging strategy but inducing tension, forcing you to be alive and aware in each moment, however frightening it may be. The story was interesting and exciting as the veil was slowly and cleverly pulled back on the mansion’s sinister background. The atmosphere was strong and affecting. However as nerve-wracking as it was traversing from one section of the map to another, the respite of finally reaching another safe room to save my progress and be momentarily safe from harm was made that much better by it. To this day, the serene and haunting soundtracks from the safe rooms bring back a strong sense of relief for me.

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Resident Evil (originally called “Biohazard” in Japan) has so many hallmarks of a great game, despite it having many trappings of early cinematic 3D video games. But the game was special to me because it delivered something new and enticing at a formative age, as several other video games did for me at that time in my childhood. Resident Evil would go on to chart an interesting course through games, movies, books and beyond. I’d drift away sometimes, but ultimately Resident Evil is a part of my gaming DNA forever.

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Now we’re on the cusp of receiving “Resident Evil VII: biohazard”. This is the game touted to be Resident Evil’s return to form. A return to that experience I had when I was 11 and I had to make my brother play through the game for me. At that time, I didn’t know any of its development background; that it evolved from a remake of Capcom’s “Sweet Home”, at one point was a first-person shooter with aliens, but in the end took major inspirations from the “Dead” films of George Romero and the survival horror precursor “Alone in the Dark”. That history is important, but it wasn’t a part of my experience growing up with the games. So I’d like to walk through the Resident Evil series history not as an informative lesson, but instead through my own personal perspective.

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By the time I got Resident Evil, its acclaimed sequel was already released so I didn’t have to wait long to experience the supreme horror journey that is Resident Evil 2. Capcom stepped up the formula in every major way. A more expansive environment, a plot with escalated stakes, refined and expanded gameplay elements and two playable protagonists – each with their own unique side to the story.

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Even though it took months before I was able to finally finish the game (at one point I had to restart my game progress because I didn’t have enough health or ammo stored up for the climactic battle with William Birkin’s gelatinous final form aboard the train), it was around then that Resident Evil began to transcend being a game for me and became a major cultural presence in my life. I studied strategy guides and became intimately familiar with secrets and nuances in the games. Secret character Hunk, even more secret “character” Tofu, Cho-Cho Cola vending machines and the “stab, stab, retreat” knifing method occupied my daily thought. In 6th grade English class, I wrote my own terrible narrative versions of Resident Evil 1 and 2 for creative writing assignments.

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I also began to amass toys from the fantastic Toy Biz action figure line from 1998. These figures had a brighter and almost cartoony look to them which matched somewhat with art and promotional material for the series in America at the time. They had great accessories and poseability, as well as fun mechanics. For example, zombies with detachable flesh, Ivy monsters with articulated mouth-traps, and Tyrant with a large beating heart. The series covered a wide range of characters too. Even Forest Speyer got his own action figure!

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My personal favorite figure though is Mr. X from Resident Evil 2. A favorite monster of mine, this figure has a fabric black coat, and body add-ons so he can transform into his Tyrant-esque final form from the game!

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My acquisition of RE toys dropped off around this point in time, but toys from Palisades, Neca and more continued through Code: Veronica, RE4 and beyond. Even a line of Pop Vinyl figures depicting classic series characters were more recently unveiled.

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Resident Evil 3: Nemesis was released when I was still immersed in the RE world. I became just as invested as before, finding so much to love in this game starring my favorite RE protagonist Jill Valentine, as well as premiering the iconic monster Nemesis. RE3 stands out as one of my favorites in the series. It often gets overlooked (it’s really more of a major spinoff than a main series chapter), but the refinements to the gameplay, as well as the focused story of a desperate escape from a doomed city while being relentlessly pursued by a superhuman monster really resonated with me.

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RE began to have numerous off-shoots and less popular entries. Resident Evil: Survivor was a mediocre on-rails shooter that used the PS1’s GunCon controller most well-known from the Time Crisis games. Resident Evil: Outbreak was an online multiplayer survival game that used the PS2 add-on Network Adapter. I couldn’t get into this game (to this day I’m not much of a multiplayer fan), but many fans regard it and its sequel “File #2” as underrated and ahead of their time.

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I was however fully on-board for “Code: Veronica”, the next true RE sequel following RE3. I couldn’t play this game for a while since I never owned a Sega Dreamcast (the game was originally exclusive to that system). But on Christmas 2001, much like Christmas 1998, I received a new PlayStation system, along with a Metal Gear Solid game and a Resident Evil game. That game was “Code: Veronica X”, the PS2 re-release of the Dreamcast version with added scenes and content.

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This was what I’d been waiting for. Classic Resident Evil gameplay, with a great, epic story that spanned continents, brought in new and classic characters, and overall moved the lore of the series forward. It was a culmination of everything that came before, but also planted some seeds for what would come in the future of the series. It played like classic RE, but much of the cinematic story was more action-oriented, and the supervillained-up series villain Albert Wesker would only get more powerful and exaggerated as the series progressed.

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Purchase the Resident Evil Film Collection on Blu-Ray 

After this, my experience with Resident Evil became more sparse. The first movie starring Milla Jovovich and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson released in 2002. My brother and I saw it in the theater, and I enjoyed it. I recognized from the get-to that it was quite different from the games, but had some touches to it I really appreciated. It had some settings that reminded me of the first game, and it also featured the Licker from RE2, this time taking the place of the final monster confrontation instead of Tyrant. It was even killed in the same way a classic RE boss might be killed, using timing and environmental hazards.

I was intrigued by the ending of the first movie, which set up the zombie-infested-city plot of RE2 as well as a potential appearance by the Nemesis creature. These things did indeed happen in the sequel “Apocalypse”, but the movie continued on down the path of sci-fi action rather than horror adventure. Several series staples like S.T.A.R.S. appear, but only briefly before being blown away by Nemesis. And the stalking monster itself that could only barely be stopped in the games by endurance, firepower and environmental dangers? Defeated in hand-to-hand combat in the movie.

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE

This movie is where I stopped with the live action films. The sequel set the tone going forward for the series; over-the-top action, plot that’s almost unrelated to the games, and occasional superficial additions of a character or image from the games that isn’t integrated into the movie in any meaningful way. They may carry their own appeal, but as a classic RE fan, they’re not for me. I prefer the current run of CGI films that tie-in with the games, even though they’re not that great and have their own share of ridiculous action.

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Even though none of the RE movies ever struck, the series of novels from S.D. Perry sure did! Perry novelized RE1, 2, 3, 4, Code Veronica and 0, and also wrote two original stories that took place early in the chronology. Caliban Cove (starring Rebecca Chambers, years before she was playable in RE0), and Underworld, featured an assault on an underground Umbrella facility in the American southwest. These novels were well-written, respected the source material, and expanded on the lore in interesting ways. Naturally these liberties make the novels contradictory because of official lore expansions that happened in later games, but they remain great pieces of RE franchise history.

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Again thwarted by console exclusivity, I didn’t play any of the GameCube RE games upon release. I didn’t properly play the remarkably excellent remake of RE1 until it came to PS4 in HD. I didn’t play RE0, and I finally got to play RE4 once it reached PS2.

Back then the “4” numeration confused me somewhat. I always thought Code: Veronica was Resident Evil 4, so it irritated me whenever people would anticipate some other RE4, whatever that was going to be. I didn’t know until later the peculiar view of how series entries were marked, with PlayStation entries being numbered and RE games on other systems being subtitled.

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The RE4 we received was truly an excellent and innovative refresh to the series. It reinvented the moving and shooting for RE as well as shooting games in general going forward, and is often seen as a landmark action game. While I appreciate what this game did and how great it is, it’s not quite on the pedestal for me that it is for many other fans. I frequently see this game listed as one of the best games of the 2000s, if not one of the best games of all time. But personally, I wouldn’t even rank RE4 as best in the series.

The series needed to be refreshed and updated. The gameplay reflected that needed change, while the story was brought back to a basic plot that escaped some of the thick drama and conspiracy the series had gotten into at that point. It was a smart choice, and created a great jumping-in point for new players. It also brought back more atmosphere and tension into the series.

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But there are some things I don’t like about the game. While some of the bosses like Del Lago and El Gigante are new and interesting, many others bosses followed a routine of some weirdo that transformed into a generic tentacled monstrosity. It was cool the first couple times, but it got old for me by the time the final boss came around. This is more personal taste than genuine game critique, but I prefer the classic gameplay, settings and characters of the old games. The new gameplay style feels better, but the classic style feels more effective with the atmosphere, restricting you to add to tension while also keeping you in control enough to make the gameplay fair and rewarding.

Regardless of these changes, RE4 became a financial and critical smash, dictating the direction of the series for years. RE5 and RE6 would get progressively more action-oriented, with QTE button prompt sequences and more theatrical plots. Wesker made his return in RE5 against an impractically-buffed up Chris Redfield. The climax of their years-long rivalry culminated in an insane final battle inside an active volcano. Wesker becomes a monster, Chris punches giant boulders, and by the end of it all it becomes a bit of a mess. Despite the ways this game does connect to the series origins through its backstory and excellent DLC side-story “Lost in Nightmares”, overall RE5 is an enjoyable but very, very different experience from the game I played in 1998.

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The series would continue to generate spin-offs that I didn’t get too invested in. “The Umbrella Chronicles” and “The Darkside Chronicles” were actually very fun off-shoots, telling extremely abridged versions of the previous games as on-rails shooters. “Operation Raccoon City” and the much later release “Umbrella Corps” displayed a baffling insistence from Capcom on making co-op online multiplayer shooters out of Resident Evil, despite how poorly both games were received. The “Revelations” side-games fared much better though, offering a tone closer to that of the horror of early games, which was refreshing next to the increasingly-tangential direction of the main games.

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Resident Evil 6 fully embraced its new identity as an action shooter. I took my time getting to RE6, and much like RE5, I enjoyed my playthrough and was compelled to follow the increasingly-ridiculous plot of these characters I held dear. Since I played through this game far after its launch, I didn’t have any high expectations going in, which helped me enjoy it. First off, the main menu is so cool:

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These moody dramatic shadows hinting at what’s to come in the game really struck me. The plot structure was also a nice surprise too, doing something a little different by following different sets of characters in their own separate vignettes that sometimes cross-over. I don’t like how each chapter follows a pair of characters instead of a single character in a forced co-op situation, since we end up getting a classic RE hero paired with a random new character we never care about. But I do like how each of these stories represent a distinct style of Resident Evil game. Leon and Helena’s beginnings as almost a recreation of the fallen city setting of RE2, with some spookier and more atmospheric moments featuring classic zombies. Sherry and Jake have a Nemesis-like motif in the story, being pursued by a similar albeit less-intimidating creature called Ustanak. Finally Chris and Piers’s story represents modern RE, with Uroboros-like enemies populating the journey.

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I also found certain boss designs more interesting (Haos is unlike anything I’ve seen in RE before), but overall I didn’t like what the series had become. The gameplay and tone was absent of strategy, tension and horror, and the story became less engaging and more difficult to follow. I recognized the fact that Resident Evil had now morphed into a completely new type of game. You could argue that I needed to embrace the new direction, since games do need to evolve over time. But I definitely wasn’t alone in my views. Capcom thought the fans wanted action-based gameplay since RE4 and 5 had done so well. And while RE6 did perform well commercially, there was near-universal outcry from the fans and much of the industry for a refresh, some kind of return to what defined Resident Evil in the first place. And at E3 2016, we received a major ray of hope at E3’s press conference:

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Without having heard anything but vague rumors for years, a trailer for a very interesting horror game was revealed to be “Resident Evil VII: biohazard”. I went kinda nuts for it. I loved the title tying in the games’ legacy, I was open and intrigued by RE going first-person, and overall I was so thankful that Capcom were finally trying something new but respectful with the franchise. This was an attempt to recapture the atmosphere and dread from the classic games in a modern way, and from all available evidence they appear to have succeeded. I hope RE7 ends up tying into the classics in some small way, but overall I’m ready for this much-needed refresh to the series I grew up with.

Resident Evil VII: biohazard is out today – purchase here.

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2 thoughts on “From Spencer to Baker: A Resident Evil Retrospective”

  1. Beautifully written piece!

    I remember growing up watching my Dad play Resident Evil, and then when I was old enough to tackle it on my own having my younger brother watch me play it. It became kind of a family bonding experience. It’s funny how a franchise like this can do that!

    Hell. I’m suddenly reminded of how my family stopped playing games together for a while, but then Resident Evil 4 came out on the cube and we all got together for it, taking it in lives. Forget family meals – family Resident Evil is what it’s all about.

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